Martin O’Neill sat himself in the stands at Molineux to see his new Sunderland charges take on Wolverhampton Wanderers. The former Aston Villa manager will have quickly come to realise that there are changes he needs to make at the Stadium of Light, but also that there may be the tools he needs, to make short-term progress, already at the club.
What will have startled O’Neill will have been the ease at which the Black Cats fell apart after Sebastian Larsson’s penalty miss and Steven Fletcher’s equaliser for Wolves. From that moment, confidence visibly drained away from those players that Sunderland had on the field, who had counter-attacked at pace and who had dealt with their opponents threats, until that moment, with a certain degree of assurance and comfort. From the moment Fletcher’s header beat Kieran Westwood, there was only going to be one winner, and, for the second successive week, the Wearsiders went on to lose from a winning position.
Therefore, O’Neill will need to instill in his new side a degree of belief, character and leadership. The likes of John O’Shea and Wes Brown must start becoming more vocal presences on the pitch and in the dressing room – perhaps at Manchester United they didn’t need to be, but with their respective levels of experience, both are seasoned internationals, of course, they must be prepared to do what is necessary – they must alleviate worry and negativity amongst younger colleagues, and start taking charge of proceedings when things become tougher than they would like.
O’Neill has had on-field leaders at his previous clubs – Martin Laursen (Aston Villa), Stillian Petrov (Celtic & Aston Villa), Neil Lennon (Leicester City & Celtic), Matt Elliott & Steve Walsh (Leicester City). If he doesn’t feel he has the required characters in the Stadium of Light dressing rooms now, then come January, he won’t hesitate in bringing in new faces, who will give his side more backbone than that which has been shown in 2011 and which ultimately cost Steve Bruce his job.
Also of worry to O’Neill will be that Sunderland are blunt in attack. It had been noticeable earlier in the season, but the defeats by the two sides beginning with ‘W’ have really hammered home that fact.
Ji Dong-Won needs time to adapt to English football, but isn’t a poacher in the Darren Bent mould, nor a skillful powerhouse like Asamoah Gyan, both of whom have departed in the past 12 months. The South Korean’s link-up play is decent however. Nicklas Bendtner continues to frustrate with his ego, clearly thinking he is better than he is. He has ability and the physique to trouble defenders, but he doesn’t commit, nor is he willing to put his body on the line, the way an Alan Shearer or a Kevin Phillips would to get goals. Connor Wickham is young and a talent, but needs time to develop. Therefore, options are limited, and O’Neill will need to spend money on a proven goalscorer in January.
However, it isn’t all doom-and-gloom on Wearside, something that O’Neill will have been well aware of before signing a three-year deal with the club.
In Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland have a creative talent capable of committing defenders and producing moments of brilliance for his side. If O’Neill can harness his undoubted ability in a functioning side, then he’s a potential match-winner, whether his new manager chooses to deploy him from the left flank or as a number 10.
Elsewhere, Sebastian Larsson is a very gifted technical footballer, whose delivery from set-pieces is straight out the top drawer whilst, there is a surplus of top-quality goalkeepers in Kieran Westwood, Craig Gordon and the young Belgian international Simon Mignolet.
Brown and O’Shea remain solid Premier League performers, in a squad also containing Titus Bramble and Michael Turner. Phil Bardsley has improved vastly in the last 18 months whilst Kieran Richardson has plenty of quality and energy, from which to spring from an attacking left-back position.
Whilst there is a dearth of forward talent, O’Neill may make use of a system with three centre-halves – although the obituaries to systems using such defensive lines have been written, Walter Mazzari’s Napoli have shown that it can have it’s place in modern football – with Richardson and Bardsley given the run of the flanks, as attacking wing-backs.
Playing with a back-three could allow O’Neill to monopolise his defensive and midfield resources – the Sunderland squad is stocked with central midfielders including Jack Colback, Lee Cattermole, Craig Gardner, David Vaughan, David Meyler in addition to Larsson and Sessegnon – potentially in a 3-5-1-1 formation, thus allowing Sessegnon a free role behind a lone striker. O’Neill played three centre-halves quite often during his time at Filbert Street.
In the short-term, it would make the Black Cats difficult to beat, making the most of decent technical players such as Vaughan, Larsson and Colback, whilst the imagination of such a system, could bamboozle opponents. Larsson has proven that he can score goals from midfield this season, whilst his former Birmingham team-mate Craig Gardner was top-scorer at St Andrews last season.
There is talent at the club, no question about it. Now it’s up to O’Neill to harnsess that talent in a way that Steve Bruce proved incapable of doing.
Three consecutive sixth-place finishes at Aston Villa prove that Martin O’Neill has vast ability. He has always appeared set to produce greatness at one club or another. Perhaps, if he can mould the team as he wants quickly, in a harmonious environment in front of 48,000 passionate supporters, that destiny can be fulfilled.